Cycling in Calgary offers challenges and rewards

By Curtis Wolff

The most convenient way of getting around Calgary is undoubtedly by car. As the city has expanded outwards, the need to own a vehicle as an efficient and reliable mode of transportation has increased. But lost in the commute up and down Crowchild or Deerfoot Trail is a way of seeing and getting around Calgary that is often ignored by motorists. The City of Calgary claims to have some of the best cycling routes and facilities in North America, although this largely depends on whether one is using these paths for recreation or transportation.

Cycling is not a popular mode of commuting in Calgary. According to the 2011 City of Calgary Cycling Strategy, while the number of Calgarians that commute downtown via motor vehicle has decreased in the past decade, and public transit usage has increased, the number of Calgarians who ride their bike to work has stayed constant. The cycling share of traffic into the Central Business District only slightly increased from 1.7 to 1.9 per cent between 1999 to 2010.

Lonny Balbi is a Calgary lawyer and founder of Bike to Work Day, an event that encourages people to leave their vehicle in the garage for a day and try cycling to work instead. According to Balbi, the top concern for cyclists in the city is safety.

“People are worried about getting hit by a car or getting stuck in traffic,” said Balbi. “That’s the number one concern we see coming up most constantly in surveys.”

According to a survey from the Cycling Strategy, 79 per cent of Calgarians are not comfortable sharing the road with motor vehicles without a designated bike lane. Balbi sees the expansion of bike lanes in the city as the key for easing the concerns of both cyclists and motorists.

“The motorists want to use the road because it’s built for cars,” said Balbi. “Cyclists want to share the road and sometimes they use more of the road than they should. That’s why having dedicated bike lanes and paths that are strictly for cyclists are good answers to those kinds of concerns.”

Balbi cites Vancouver as an example of a city that has managed to successfully integrate more designated bike lanes into their streets. Due in part to this added infrastructure, Vancouver’s cycling commuting share is at a healthy 3.7 per cent, double that of Calgary’s.

While the City of Calgary is constantly constructing new pathways and exploring ways to make the city more bicycle friendly, building new infrastructure takes time and money. In the meantime, cyclists can plan out a safe route prior to starting on their journey using the route maps provided on the City of Calgary website. Once commuters find a safe way to ride their bike to work, the benefits can be tremendous.

“It’s fun to do and it’s healthy,” said Balbi, noting that cycling to work or school eliminates the costs of parking, gas and the price of a motor vehicle itself. “It’s just great to be able to ride along the bike paths and see the trees on a crisp beautiful morning.”

Although not everyone is willing to ride their bike to work, Calgarians can still enjoy Calgary’s vast pathway network for leisure purposes. While the infrastructure for commuting via bicycle may not be as advanced in Calgary compared to other cities, Calgary still offers a tremendous selection of world-class urban cycling pathways for recreational purposes.

For example, the Elbow River Pathway takes recreational cyclists from Prince’s Island Park in downtown Calgary to Fish Creek Provincial Park in the southwest is a meandering route that shouldn’t be used by cyclists hoping to get to work on time, but the pathway is a prime option for those looking for a scenic ride in the city.

The route swings around the east side of Stampede Park, offering a unique view of the chuckwagon races during Stampede time, before heading back across Macleod Trail into the heart of the city. Cyclists can follow the Elbow River down to Stanley Park or further down to Sandy Beach where they can stop for lunch and watch the rafters float by.

From Sandy Beach cyclists can climb up and out of the river valley. The steep incline offers a stiff challenge for even the fittest of cyclists, but the view of the Elbow River from the top of the bluff makes it worth the effort. From there cyclists can head south towards the Glenmore Reservoir and hang a right to go the long away around, which includes a leisurely ride through the wetlands in the Weaselhead Natural Area that feels far detached from the bustling city streets.

From Weaselhead, cyclists can head due south, following a path that straddles the border between suburban Calgary and the T’suu Tina Nation. After a few kilometres the pathway dips down into Fish Creek Park, which offers a variety of routes that wind south and east towards the Bow River. Cyclists wishing to finish their ride in style can reserve a table at The Ranche Restaurant, a historic ranch house that is now one of Calgary’s most critically acclaimed dining spots. For cyclists on a budget, or those who simply don’t want to dine in their sweaty athletic gear, there is an adjacent house that sells ice cream and desserts.

Making use of the bike paths and lanes that are available helps fight many of the problems that modern urban centres face. As the roads get more congested, the sky more polluted and the population more obese, developing a culture of cycling for either transportation or recreation can be a small part of the solution. As Balbi has learned during his involvement with Bike to Work Day, the first step is to be willing to give cycling a chance.

“The idea is just to get on your bike and try riding,” said Balbi. “When people try it once or twice, they say it’s something they could do more often.”

Leave a comment